4 Questions about TBLT

In response to my previous posts about TBLT, Russ Mayes asked some interesting questions, and I’ll try to answer them here.

Question 1
To start at the end, Russ says in regard to interlanguage:

If it’s not innate but also consistent regardless of the L1 or target language, what on earth could be the mechanism leading to this?

Good question! No really, it is a good question. Interlanguage as a theoretical construct refers to a systematic, natural language, so learners are constrained in the development of interlanguages by the same principles that constrain the development of any human language. Those researchers who argue that UG is fully accessed in SLA say these constraints are due to a human language faculty (what Chomsky calls the L.A.D). But others (and I place myself in this other camp) claim that general cognition principles which explain how we process and learn any other kind of information, can explain how L2 learners develop their interlanguages. The UG view of interlanguage development is powerful, because it has the backing of an excellent theory, but, since I ‘m not persuaded that UG applies to SLA, I have to reply to Russ’ question “What’s the mechanism?” by saying: general cognitive processing. “Thin soup”, I can hear Russ grumble, so, in a desperate attempt to thicken it a bit, we must go back to the story. What follows is mostly taken from Ortega (2009).

Let me summarise the 3 important features of interlanguages. First, input can’t explain it. Oshita (2000) quotes from an L2 English essay written by an L1 Spanish speaker: “It [a wall] was falled down in order to get a bigger greenhouse”. The regular past tense ending -ed has been added to an irregular intransitive verb. The learner didn’t pick this up from input.

Second, if we hear “How I do this?” from an L1 Spanish learner or an L1 Punjabi learner, whose languages do not have inversion, we may say that the L1 is inducing the choice. But, as Ortega says, “if we sampled learners from a wide enough range of L1 backgrounds, including languages where inversion does exist (e.g., Dutch and German), we would find that they, too, use un-inverted questions in their English interlanguage at an early stage of L2 development”. The evidence suggests that the L1 cannot be the correct explanation for lack of inversion, and it turns out that “How I do this?” results from what Ortega calls “a universally attested interlanguage solution to the problem of question formation in English”, namely fronting.

Third, many interlanguage solutions are also attested in the production of children acquiring their first language. “How”, Ortega asks, “can we explain interlanguage solutions that are neither directly attributable to the input nor to the L1, and that are shared by first and second language acquirers? The unavoidable conclusion is that these forms are interim systematic innovations that learners independently create when they are trying to figure out the workings of the new language system they are learning. …. Interlanguages develop due to the interaction of multiple forces including input, knowledge of the L1, and the interaction between the universal shape of languages and the conceptual apparatus of the human mind. These include syntactic, semantic-discoursal and statistical, as well as conceptual and sensorimotor, processing influences on the one hand, and communicative pressures and social incentives learners experience as they use the language to make meaning on the other”.

Interlanguage Sequences

In order to illustrate L2 sequences, Ortega examines findings for five interlanguage domains. These are:

1. Morpheme orders
2. Form-function mappings
3. Developmental stages of negation
4. Developmental stages of word order and questions
5. Hierarchical acquisition of relative clauses.

In all 5 domains evidence from a number of studies strongly indicates a sequence of learning which is unaffected by learner age, L1, acquisition context, or instructional approach.


Having spent some considerable time discussing research on L2 sequences, Ortega turns to a discussion of processes, which are “the manifestation of putative mechanisms by which learners develop (or fail to develop) their internal grammars”. She focuses on four processes: simplification; overgeneralization; restructuring and U-shaped behaviour; and fossilization.

Simplification reflects a strategy that is called upon when messages must be conveyed with little language. Simplification is seen during very early stages of L2 development and also later on, when complex syntax and some morphology emerge. So, for example, even though a full range of formal choices is available in the morphology of the target language, a base (invariant) form tends to be chosen by learners at first; and even though multiple form-meaning mappings exist in the target language, a one-meaning-one-form mapping is initially represented in the learner grammar.

Overgeneralization involves the application of a form or rule not only to contexts where it applies in the target language, but also to others where it does not apply. Ortega gives the case of systematic overgeneralization in morphology where an attempt is made to make irregular forms fit regular patterns, as seen in the example from Oshita, 2000, cited above.

Restructuring is the process of self-reorganization of grammar knowledge representations. During periods when restructuring of internal representations is happening, learners may seem to “backslide” and produce “errors” they did not seem to produce earlier, producing a pattern known as U-shaped behavior. Sharwood Smith and Kellerman (1989) define it as “the appearance of correct, or nativelike, forms at an early stage of development which then undergo a process of attrition, only to be re-established at a later stage” .

Simplification, overgeneralization, restructuring, and other fundamental processes help learners move along the sequences. But there is no guarantee that the outcomes of these processes will keep propelling all learners toward convergence with the target system. Despite apparently favourable conditions for learning, many L2 users may stop anywhere along a given sequence of development, perhaps permanently. The term fossilization was coined by Selinker (1972) to refer to such cases of “premature cessation of development in defiance of optimal learning conditions” (Han, 2004, cited in Ortega, 2009).

I’ve omitted all the examples Ortega gives of sequences and processes, and strongly advise all those interested in interlanguage development to read the chapter in its entirety. I should say here that IMHO, Long and Doughty’s 2009 Handbook of Language Teaching contains a superb collection of papers; it’s the best book in the field of applied linguistics published in the last 10 years.

Question 2
I know Russ well enough by now not to say anything rash like “So, there we have it”; I’ve simply outlined a picture which needs filling in and even then, it’s hardly a shining portrait of the obvious truth. But I think it’s enough to answer Russ’ questions, so let’s deal with the rest of them. Russ asks for clarification about the claim that instruction can’t affect the route of interlanguage development. Russ says:

the claim only applies to L2 grammar development, right? You could learn as many words, phrases etc as you wanted. Also, the scope of what is defined as ‘grammar’ is not things like ‘you should play tennis’, this would be classed as vocabulary.

The claim extends to the 5 domains listed above, which, of course includes morphology and the development of the accurate use of phrases and lexical chunks. But I should bring to light (because if I don’t, Russ will) studies that show that explicit instruction in a particular structure can produce measurable learning: Long mentions several, but points out that the studies involved devoting far more extensive periods of time to intensive practice of the targeted feature than is usually available and that “once the teaching focus shifts to new linguistic targets, learners revert to an earlier stage on the normal path of acquisition of the structure which they had supposedly mastered in isolation “ahead of schedule”” (Long, 2015, p. 22) .

Question 3
Another issue Russ brings up concerns learning relative clauses. Russ says:

The evidence shows that Arabic speakers and Chinese speakers get roughly equal scores on tests of relative clauses. But closer inspection shows that Chinese students used them far less. Chinese doesn’t have relative clauses and Arabic does, so it could be supposed that when Chinese students used them they were more careful.

Quite right, and this supposition was taken into account in the study. I think Russ’ general point is that in studies of SLA (or anything else for that matter) we have to be very careful in saying what the evidence we gather is evidence of. I’ve said elsewhere that evidence (data) should be in the service of some theory or hypothesis that attempts to explain a phenomenon, and that lots of raw data really doesn’t get us anywhere. Data offered in support of the theory of interlanguage development (a theory which is far from complete or free from controversy) needs to be very carefully scrutinised.

Question 4
A fourth question Russ asks is:

How do these developmental stages occur (a) if the ‘stage’ doesn’t actually exist in the target language; (b) when the L1 and L2 both have the target feature constructed in the same way. An example might be question formation in English versus Japanese. A Chinese student learning Japanese only has to learn that ‘ma’ is ‘ka’ in Japanese, but in English has to learn the entire convoluted ‘do support’ system (which only 2 other languages possess).

If the ‘stage’ doesn’t actually exist in the target language then it is skipped; but, as was briefly mentioned above, whether the L1 and L2 both have the target feature constructed in the same way or not, learners seem to go through the same stages in the development of “the entire convoluted ‘do support’ system”. The emergence of questions in L2 English has been traced by many, including Pienemann, Johnston, & Brindley (1988, cited in Ortega, 2009).

Stage 1: Words and fragments with rising intonation. E.g.: One astronaut outside the space ship? A ball or a shoe?

Stage 2: Canonical word order with rising intonation. E.g.: He have two house in the front? Two children ride a bicycle?

Stage 3: Fronting of a questioning element (wh-word, do something else). E.g.: Where the little children are? What the boy is throwing?

Stage 4: Inversion in two restricted contexts: (1) in wh-questions with copula, (2) in yes/no questions with auxiliaries other than do. E.g.: Where is the sun? Where is the space ship? The ball is it in the grass or in the sky?

Stage 5: Inversion expands to the full range of target like contexts . E.g.: How many astronauts do you have? What is the boy throwing?

Stage 6: Negative questions; Question tags; Questions in embedded clauses. E.g.: Doesn’t your wife speak English? You live here, don’t you? Can you tell me where the station is?

Just by the way, the pattern in L2 development shown here is one of gradual approximation to the target system, and learners “outgrow” each stage as they develop. This is not the only pattern as illustrated by the pattern uncovered by Meisel, Clahsen, and Pienemann (1981, cited in Ortega, 2009) for word order in L2 German. Unlike the emergence of questions (or the negation sequence which Ortega also describes), where the learners gradually outgrows each stage, the word order stages are cumulative. This means that each stage adds an important piece to the increasingly more complete repertoire of syntactic options, until the interlanguage system matches the full complexity of the repertoire available in the target grammar.

As a final twist, an unwary novice teacher might jump to the naïve conclusion that the sequences and processes of L2 development discovered by SLA research should form the basis for a syllabus aimed at classroom instruction. Well, no. First, most aspects of the grammar of any target language are not covered by the research. Second, we don’t know how even the different sequences we’ve uncovered relate to each other in the grammar of individual learners, so textbook writers and curriculum developers have little guidance as to how to sequence grammatical targets according to developmental learner readiness principles. Third, learning syntax and morphology is only part of the task; learning vocabulary, pragmatics, phonology, and so on is also involved, and although a lot is known about how these areas are learned by L2 users, it’s not obvious how all this knowledge can be used to design a syllabus. Most importantly, as I hope I’ve explained in previous posts, organising classroom teaching around grammar in a product or synthetic syllabus is less effective than options more attuned to what we know about psycholinguistic, cognitive, and socioeducational principles for good language teaching.

Ortega finishes her chapter on an upbeat note. “Nevertheless, knowledge about the sequences and processes of interlanguage development can inform good teaching by helping teachers (and their students) cultivate a different attitude toward “errors,” and more enlightened expectations for “progress.” It can help them recognize that many so-called errors are a healthy sign of learning, that timing is hugely important in language teaching, and that not all that can be logically taught can be learned if learners are not developmentally ready. Knowledge about sequences and processes can also help counter the deficit view that interlanguages are defective surrogates of the target language by making it clear that interlanguages are shaped by the same systematicity and variability that shape all other forms of human language.”

Long, M and Doughty, C. (2009) Handbook of Language Teaching. Oxford, Wiley.
Ortega, L. (2009) Sequences and Processes in Language Learning. In Long and Doughty Handbook of Language Teaching. Oxford, Wiley.


11 thoughts on “4 Questions about TBLT

  1. Hi Geoff, blogreaders and commentors,
    I have so much to catch up with in the blogsphere but specially in your blog Geoff. Thanks Russ for the questions and Geoff for keeping answering/discussing them. I find this kind of post the best one. I’ll be back soon to catch up and I guess with everyone else too. 🙂


    • Sorry, Chris, I forgot to give the reference. it was scheduled for 2015, but is out now.

      Long, M. (2014) Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.


  2. Fascinating reading, Geoff. The university should really make your blog required reading. Incidentally, and I’ve been wondering this for awhile, since you seem to think module 3’s critical discourse analysis is unnecessary, what would you replace it with? Something having to do with theory construction and empiricism?


    • Hi Mark,

      Thanks for your kind words. I have to make it clear that this blog has no connection whatsoever to any university. Quite understandably, some of the staff of the uni. where I work take a dim view of both the tone and content of my posts, particularly posts such as Crap Books and Tom the Teacher.

      I personally have little interest in critical discourse analysis, partly because so many published articles and books on this subject are written in an obscurantist style which smacks to me of bullshit. But it’s an accepted part of most curricula of applied linguistics, and very popular with those who find scientific research stifling, blinkered, old-hat, boring, etc..


  3. Hi Geoff, and thanks for a fascinating series of posts. I have what may be a dumb question, I’m sure I’ve not quite got my head round this. When Russ asks about vocabulary, saying (as I understood it) that a learner could learn as much of this as they put their mind to, you respond “The claim extends to the 5 domains listed above, which, of course includes morphology and the development of the accurate use of phrases and lexical chunks.” In which of the domains does this latter development lie? And does this then mean that there’s a sequence in which English lexical chunks are learned, as part of the development of interlanguage? If so, could this sequence form the basis of a lexical syllabus, as opposed to basing such a syllabus on frequency?

    Or can one, as I think Russ’s comment implies (intentionally or not I don’t know), advance a learner’s interlanguage development by focusing them on phrases? If one were to take a lexico-grammatical approach to teaching question formation in English, e.g. teaching /djə/, /dʌzi/ & /dʌzʃi/ as chunks for making yes/no present simple questions, rather than focusing on the grammar of inversion and the auxiliary do, would a learner be able to master useful elements of stage 5 of the development of question formation before they would otherwise be able to do so? I’ve tried this before but it’s difficult to know if it had any impact beyond the end of the course.


    • Hi Neil,
      Thanks for this. To slightly paraphrase your question, you ask “Is there a sequence in which English lexical chunks are learned, as part of the development of interlanguage? If so, could this sequence form the basis of a lexical syllabus, as opposed to basing such a syllabus on frequency?”

      So far, in the study of SLA, all we have are bits and pieces of the jigsaw, and those doing the studies and the analysis of data have made various proposals as to what the big picture of interlanguage (IL) development looks like. Although there’s enough evidence to suggest that IL development follows a sequence which is more or less fixed, there’s not enough evidence to say in what order grammar or lexis or lexical chunks are acquired. To take 2 examples, the studies show that some morphemes are acquired in a more or less set sequence, and that the emergence of questions in L2 English goes through six stages. This, plus the results of studies in other domains, is enough to seriously question the validity of a synthetic syllabus (based on the presentation and practice of a sequence of grammar forms, or functions, or vocabulary / lexical chunks) because of the false assumption that learners will learn the content of such a syllabus in the order that it’s presented. The argument, developed by Doughty, Long, Skehan, Robinson and others, is that we must respect the learners’ internal syllabus by using an analytic, not synthetic, syllabus, thereby avoiding futile attempts to impose an external linguistic syllabus on learners and instead, providing input that is at least roughly tuned to learners’ current processing capacity by virtue of having been negotiated by them during collaborative work on pedagogic tasks. So we should concentrate more on facilitating implicit learning than on explicit teaching, give more carefully-tuned input, and use “focus on form not focus on formS”.

      I think the above remarks server to answer your question about whether we can advance a learner’s interlanguage development by taking a lexico-grammatical approach to teaching question formation in English, rather than focusing on the grammar of inversion and the auxiliary do. Any attempt to explicitly teach question formation relies to a critical extent on the learners’ readiness to learn it. So it’s better to teach question formation by dealing with it when it arises in the negotiation of meaning which goes on during work on a task.


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